February 16, 2017 10:37:15 AM
STARKVILLE -- What would become the biggest day of Sarai Niu's life didn't begin or end as planned.
A talented high school softball-playing senior, Niu had fought back great reservations and decided to take an official visit to Mississippi State.
"On the way to the airport, (the University of) Arizona called and told me they were changing my offer because they didn't have that much money for me," Niu said. "I was devastated. I made my way through the airport, boarded the plane, and was crying the whole time."
In Starkville, the Mississippi State coaching staff anticipated the arrival of Niu. Assistant coach Tyler Bratton had been recruiting her through the travel ball circuit and thought she would be an exclamation point to the recruiting class.
"Softball is different in that players commit very early and usually stick to that commitment," Bratton said. "We have players from the Classes of 2019 and 2020 already committed. Sarah had rescinded her commitment (from Cal State Fullerton), so she was easily one of the best seniors in the country and she was available.
"This was going to an actual official visit where we had to do the recruiting. Most visits are players already committed to your program. This time, the players, coaches, the school, had to pull it off. That is what made her recruitment different."
Turns out Bratton's day didn't go as planned, either.
Due to storms on the West Coast and Midwest, Niu's travel plans got altered twice. Already emotionally distraught, the day included long delays and doubts about whether she would make it to Starkville.
"She was stranded for the night in Atlanta and had a 6 a.m. flight Saturday morning," Bratton said. "We didn't want her alone that night. There was a football game Saturday morning at 11. The only way for her to get the full Mississippi State experience was for me to go get her. The conversation with (head coach) Vann (Stuedeman) took one minute and I headed out to Atlanta."
Bratton began recruiting Niu when she played summer ball for the So Cal Athletics. Bratton noticed Niu was listed as "not committed" while watching her play during a tournament in Irvine, California. He took extensive notes and made sure to touch base with Niu's family at the tournament.
"My junior year is when I really broke out and realized I could play Division I softball for a really good program," Niu said. "My senior year, I picked up some Pac-12 offers, but really being offered by a Southeastern Conference school changed everything."
Niu said she still intended to play softball in California to stay with "what was comfortable to me." With Mississippi State still not at the top of her list, Bratton insisted she come to Starkville, so she traveled alone to Starkville for her official visit.
"We really treat all of recruits the same way," MSU senior Katie Anne Bailey said. "We want to bring them in and show them the complete Mississippi State experience. We love on them and let them know they can be part of something special. Sarai's case was a little different. We knew (Stuedeman) wanted her badly. We really had a job to do."
Pacific-12 Conference-member schools Oregon and Oregon State later joined the mix and made offers to Niu, but only after MSU had virtually sealed the deal.
Niu warmed to the idea of coming to Starkville and trying something new on the four-hour car ride from Atlanta to Starkville with Bratton.
"I could tell they genuinely wanted me," Niu said. "It's like this coach gave up his time on a Friday night and went out of his way to come get me, to make sure my visit went as planned. Southern hospitality is a real thing. You hear about it. You read about it. You don't really understand it until you experience it first hand."
While the SEC has enjoyed a recent surge in softball excellence with three of the past five national champions, the Pac-12 has long been considered the nation's premier softball conference. Niu knows the impact of both leagues but sees the approach to success being different.
"California has so many great players, those schools can't help but be good," Niu said. "There is so much more passion in the SEC. I grew up in San Diego where there is more than one Division I team and the professional teams.
"In Starkville, the whole city is obsessed with the university. I wouldn't say it has been that difficult getting adjusted to life in Starkville. I like the big city. I like the small city. What I like about here is the passion. When anything happens on this campus, the whole town is buzzing. You can't get that out west."
The Starkville community was buzzing when Niu took her official visit. That Saturday included the football game, a tour of the softball facilities, and a team dinner.
"Our players are the biggest sales persons for the program," Bratton said. "They know what it takes to land a really premier player. By just being themselves, they show how much fun it can be to come here and play softball in a great facility and a great conference."
Kayla Winkfield is a student assistant coach with this year's program. She was ready to start her junior year when Niu made her official visit. Raised in a town of 5,000 people (Giddings, Texas), Winkfield saw Starkville as a chance to move up to the big city.
"I couldn't relate to being from a big city," Winkfield said. "I could relate to being far away from home. I could relate to trying to find things to do on weekends in a new town. I think Sarai handled it well. Everybody gets homesick. Even though I was a long way (slightly more than 600 miles) away, I couldn't comprehend being from California.
"It's all about family. We are there for each other. We keep each other going. You can tell when a freshman is having those tough missing home moments. To Sarai's credit, she didn't have very many of them."
With Niu won over, the equally tough sell job had to be done on her parents, Sai and Tammy Niu.
"The biggest change in recruiting is the SEC Network," Bratton said. "You can tell the parents between TV and online streams, they will be able to pretty much watch every game, and that is very reassuring. That is why the SEC schools have California kids all over their roster. Mississippi State is a safe campus. It's a great place to go to school. When you present the positive aspects of the school, it's not as hard as you would think."
Niu said her mother initially doubted MSU was a legitimate choice for her daughter. As the relationship with Stuedeman and Bratton grew, the entire family started to believe.
Sai and Tammy Niu have four children -- Sarai's older brother Niko, younger brother, Sampson, and younger sister, Patricia.
Sampson is a senior in high school, where he has just signed a National Letter of Intent to play football at Oregon. Patricia Niu is 15 and plays softball and rugby.
"Even though my younger brother is younger than me, I can still learn so much from him," Niu said. "The way he does his work in the classroom. The way he carries himself as a person. I respect him so much. I am so proud he is going to get to play (at Oregon). My mother is going to go crazy with one less of us at home, though.
"I really reach out to my family a lot. They all have advice to give me. My older brother ran track, too, so when you talk about my siblings, they have all faced some of the challenges I have faced. It's great to hear their voices when you are so far from home."
Niu said she adapted to life in Starkville quickly. Her main miss from home is Mexican food. Her teammates keep her busy and always have a vehicle to lend in a time of need.
Tammy Niu still hasn't been to MSU. The family took in some games at a tournament last season in California. Sai and Sampson Niu stopped off for opening day at Nusz Park on the way to a football official visit at Vanderbilt.
Niu drew 48 starts her freshman campaign. This season, she is expected to add punch to the middle of the lineup at first base. The Bulldogs are looking for a return to NCAA regional play after finishing 26-31 last season.
"Our goal here is the national championship," Niu said. "It's a long process. You can only take it one step at a time. Each day, we try to get better as a team."
For Niu, happy days far outweigh sad days. In some cases, sad days became happy days after the fact.
"I really thought I would hate every minute (of the official visit)," Niu said, "Turned out I loved every minute of it. I could not have been more wrong about how something played out."
n Ole Miss will play in Rawlings Classic: At Houston, the Ole Miss softball team will take on No. 4 Oklahoma at 2 p.m. Friday in its first game at the Rawlings Classic, which will be hosted by the University of Houston.
Ole Miss also will face Houston (7 p.m. Friday), Incarnate Word (11:30 a.m. Saturday), and Rhode Island (2 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. Sunday).
After going 3-1 at the Easton Invitational in Fullerton, California last week, Ole Miss continues to receive votes in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) and USA Softball polls.
n Alabama 3, South Alabama 1: At Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Alexis Osorio struck out 15, and Marisa Runyon hit her second home run of the season Wednesday to lead the No. 5 Alabama softball team past South Alabama at Rhoads Stadium.
Alabama (6-0) trailed South Alabama (5-1) in the hit column, 5-4, but two early runs and some late insurance proved enough to claim the two-run victory. The top three batters in Alabama's order accounted for three of the team's hits while a fifth-inning solo home run by Runyon sealed the deal.
"At the beginning of the year, I told the team we have to learn to win in a lot of different ways," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "Tonight, we had to win while being outhit. We had some key hits though. I thought Runyon was going to get one, she hit two really hard during her first two at-bats and had a great swing. Demi Turner had a hustle-double, Peyton Grantham hit it hard and Elissa Brown caused them to hurry with her speed and got a run all by herself."
Osorio (3-0) was perfect through three innings before the Jaguars led off the top of the fourth with a hit, her first baserunner allowed so far this season. The junior from Riverside, California, allowed one run on five hits.
Alabama got the scoring started in the bottom of the first, as Turner and Grantham hit back-to-back doubles to make it 1-0. In the bottom of the third, Brown led off with an infield single before stealing second and third and coming home on an errant throw to make it 2-0.
Alabama will play a three-game series against No. 18 Louisiana-Lafayette (4-2) this weekend in Lafayette, Louisiana. Game 1 will be at 5 p.m. Friday.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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